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Cover letters – are they necessary?


Cover letters - are they necessaryI’ve been following a recent discussion on an email list about the need for cover letters, and it’s caused me to think about the evolution of cover letters and resumes. Here is what I see. Most resumes are at least 2 pages long (although I believe 95% of them should be shorter than they are), and so we are accustomed to seeing a summary section in the top half of the first page. This profile usually highlights the candidate’s key qualifications for the job they are targeting. One of the reasons for this summary is to entice the reader into reading the rest of the resume. It provides a snapshot of the candidate.

Then we add a cover letter to the resume. Most people agree that the purpose of the cover letter is to “introduce” the resume, or entice the reader into reading the resume. In order to do this, the cover letter should typically highlight the candidate’s key qualifications. Why, if they’re already on the resume? Because the key qualifications are the key selling features they possess that are absolutely going to be most relevant and compelling to that reader. If they only highlight them on their resume, and don’t mention them in the cover letter, the reader may not have enough interest in actually getting to the resume. This isn’t the time to keep the best stuff a secret and hope the reader perseveres.

We used to mail or fax our resumes and cover letters. Then came email. The body of the email is viewed by the recipient before the attachments, so it’s important that whatever is put in the body of the email entices the recipient to open the attachments. How does a job-seeker entice the recipient to proceed further? Highlight their key qualifications. (I’ve advocated in the past to write a short blurb about the position and the attachments. In this post I’m speaking theoretically about the need to entice the recipient through each stage of communication.)

So based on this theory, which is very common, the candidate has included a snapshot of their key qualifications in the resume profile, the cover letter, and the body of the email. The next question is, of course, is this too much? Do employers want candidates to be repeating themselves like this?

One could make the argument that the cover letter shouldn’t repeat the key qualifications from the resume. Instead, it should focus on other aspects such as how they heard about the job, how it’s a fit for them, and how they’d like to proceed with the application process. These are all quite commonly found on cover letters, and there is some value to providing the recipient with this information. However, by not also highlighting their key qualifications, how can the purpose of the cover letter still be to entice the reader to read the resume? What would entice them more than a glimpse into the qualifications that are more relevant and compelling to them? Further, is it safe for candidates to decide that the purpose of the cover letter is to simply provide supplementary information and not to entice the reader to read the resume? In other words, hope that they read the resume before the cover letter? That may be risky.

One could also make the argument that candidates don’t need to put their key qualifications in the body of the email if they’re already in an attached cover letter. That makes some sense but again, that makes the assumption that the recipient is attracted enough to the email to open the attachments. If it’s an advertised job, they will likely open them because they expected the email. However, they may not open the attachments for a variety of reasons – they think the email address is unprofessional, they suspect a virus in the email, or they’re totally impressed with the first 5 emails they opened, and see little reason to proceed much further. If it’s not an advertised job, it’s very unlikely they will open an attached cover letter and resume without something appealing in the body of the email.

So, what’s the answer?

My feeling right now is that a concise, targeted resume (in PDF) attached to an email with a concise, targeted mini-letter in the body of the email is the best approach (although it’s most important to follow whatever instructions are in a job ad).  We’re all drowning in information these days, and I suspect employers appreciate the brevity. That doesn’t mean all resumes have to be 1 page, or all mini-letters need to be a maximum of 3 lines. I’m simply suggesting that it may be beneficial to look for, and try to reduce, repetition in your communication. That will allow your core message to appear that much clearer to the reader.

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